Sep 182011

Can entrepreneurship be taught?

Can Entrepreneurship Be Taught?

A question I get quite frequently is, “Can entrepreneurship be taught”?  It’s a tough question and the answer is highly dependent on how you define “entrepreneurship,” so let’s start there.  If you look in Webster’s dictionary online (, there is no separate definition for entrepreneurship, but here’s the definition you find for entrepreneur:

One who organizes, manages, and assumes the risks of a business or enterprise.

Frankly, I find that definition a bit lacking, as it’s very dry and does not embody any of the spirit or mindset it takes to be an entrepreneur.

If you take a look at first the definition of entrepreneur on it’s similarly unexciting and dry, but a bit further down there is another definition that is more in line with the way I think about entrepreneurship.  That definition is:

The owner or manager of a business enterprise who, by risk and initiative, attempts to make profits.

This one appeals to me a bit more, because entrepreneurship is all about taking initiative, and the motivation for taking that initiative and assuming the related risks, is usually to make profits.

We could wordsmith the definitions of entrepreneur and entrepreneurship all day long, but the definition above should be sufficient to allow us to think more about the question at hand: Can entrepreneurship be taught?

The short preview of my opinion is that I believe certain aspects of running a business can be taught very well; however, the “entrepreneurial mindset” is difficult to teach and correspondingly tough to learn, but for the most part, it is possible.  In order to look at this aspect of the mindset a bit further, let’s review my list of the 5 Key Character Traits To Be Successful As An Entrepreneur.  Though I acknowledge that this is not an exhaustive list, in my opinion, the five key traits are as follows:

1.)  Perseverance

Having been in the entrepreneurship game for more than 30 years now, I have learned that, without a doubt, if you don’t have perseverance, you are highly unlikely to achieve any meaningful level of success as an entrepreneur.  Although you may plan and do your best to predict the future, I haven’t met anyone who can do that with 100% accuracy.  Therefore, there are going to be unforeseen challenges and you will need to persevere in order to overcome them.  The good news is that, like many of the key characteristics of successful entrepreneurs, this one can be learned — you don’t need to be born with it.

2.)  Goal Setting

I’m not sure this is one that I would always have included on this list, but over time, I have learned that the ability to set goals correctly, monitor progress toward those goals, adjust course as necessary, and make sure they are completed regardless of the obstacles you encounter, is critical to the success of most entrepreneurs.  The alternative is to not set goals, but where does that leave you?  As the saying goes, if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up somewhere else.  Setting goals and keeping them on your radar on a regular basis can also help to keep you motivated and on track when times are tough.

3.)  Tolerate Uncertainty

One thing most successful entrepreneurs I know do very well is to tolerate uncertainty.  They are comfortable and very often stimulated in situations of uncertainty.  Unlike many other traits, this is one that may be difficult (but still possible) to learn — to some extent, you’re either born with it, or you’re not.  Those of you who have sought certainty and predictability in your careers and elsewhere in your lives may find it very challenging to be in the relatively chaotic world of entrepreneurship, particularly at the early stage of a venture.  In your case, you would be wise to associate yourself with others you know who perhaps have more of a tolerance for those situations, so you can lean on them a bit when the inevitable chaos and uncertainty arrive.  You may also want to take a role in the venture that allows you to deal with some of the tasks that are a bit more routine and predictable.

4.)  A Strong Desire to Succeed

Most of the great entrepreneurs I know have an extremely strong desire to be successful in everything they do.  They are usually quite competitive, sometimes to an annoying degree and sometimes regarding tasks that, at least on the surface, don’t seem very important.  This drive to succeed is what pushes them to be the pioneer, to take the proverbial arrows, while others are content to sit back and fall into a routine.  If you don’t have such a strong desire to succeed, this may be another one that is a bit difficult to learn — but I do think it’s possible.

5.)  Different Definition of Failure

Hardly any entrepreneurs in the history of time have achieved great success without a failure, usually many, many of them.  Sure, a few have done it, but some people have hit the lottery as well.  It happens, but it’s highly unusual.  Much more common among successful entrepreneurs, are stories of repeated failure — sometimes 10, 20 or more failures — then what appears to be a sudden success that came out of nowhere.  The reality is that it did not come out of nowhere; it came from the ability to learn and course-adjust, based on previous approaches that did not work.  As with achievement in most disciplines, mindset is everything as an entrepreneur.  This is best illustrated by a comment made by Thomas Edison, when someone asked him if he had failed on a particular experiment.  His response was to the effect, “no, I just eliminated another way that does not work.”

So, let’s take a look at each of these traits in a bit more depth at it relates to “teachability”.  In the case of perseverance, perhaps the most important trait, let’s say it can be learned but cannot be taught.  A coach or other third party may be able to help you push your way through difficult situations (i.e. persevere), but the drive to do so must come from inside.  Another person can teach you how to set goals correctly.  They can also teach you and encourage you to monitor your progress toward those goals and to course-correct along the way.  A third part cannot teach you to have a personality or mindset that tolerates uncertainty well, at least not easily.  Your risk and uncertainty tolerance is something you’ve developed over a lifetime, so it’s not easy to change.  It’s possible, but only with concerted effort and incremental progress, mainly on your part.  A coach or mentor can encourage you in this process, but the desire to change will need to come from within.  If you are to develop a strong desire to succeed, that too will have to come from within.  Again, outside parties can encourage you, however, the desire will have to come from you, and it will likely be based on how important your goals are to you.  You need to set goals that really get you “fired up”.  You can redefine your definition of failure and this is something that can be taught.  It may take some time, but it is vital to your success as an entrepreneur.  If you are going to look at every small bump in the road as a failure and allow it to cause you to get off track, rather than learning from it and moving on, entrepreneurship is going to be a very tough road for you.

In summary, in my opinion, many aspects of entrepreneurship, include some parts of the “entrepreneurial mindset” can be taught and learned.  For all aspects though, the desire to learn and continue becoming a better and more successful entrepreneur will need to come from within.  You will need the drive to succeed that leads to the willpower to overcome obstacles and “make it happen”.  If you don’t have, or can’t muster this drive and willpower, no amount of teaching or learning is likely to allow you to become a successful entrepreneur.

I look forward to your thoughts and questions.  Please leave a comment (“response”) below or in the upper right corner of this post.

Paul Morin


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  • Along with those 5 traits I’d definitely have to throw Confidence and Courage into the line-up. Otherwise, all the other’s become useless to even account for when it comes to being an entrepreneur. I personally would love to be able to say that I ” learned ” how to become an entrepreneur, that my diverse avenues of business education ” taught ” me how to be an entrepreneur, but in hindsight it just didn’t quite happen that way for me. Even when I compare my story to other entrepreneurs who I know personally or others I’ve only read up on and studied in the past, the same applies for them also. That entrepreneur ” mind-set “, that ” spirit ” of an entrepreneur is something that is embedded into an individual at birth. One may attain a false impression of that mind-set/spirit for a duration but I’d have to argue that this false sense of belief in oneself to be an entrepreneur would not be sustainable to the point of ensuring financial profit into that persons venture before the breakdown. Entrepreneurs are what they are regardless of the success or lack of success within their chosen field of business. And I love what you said about a Different Definition Of Failure ( which can be translated also as a Different Definition Of Success ). Entrepreneurs have a certain Confidence ( Believe in Self ) that gives them the Courage ( no guts no glory ) to stand up to the business world and go against all odds. That cannot be taught. Well….let me retrack that statement because I being an entrepreneur do believe that you one can teach this,and as entrepreneurs we have a tendency to try teaching this mind-set to everyone around us in hopes of increasing productivity within our own endeavors. That’s something that’s just in our nature. I’ve come to the conclusion of one having to change this same question around in order to make sense of the reason why everyone isn’t thinking like an entrepreneur naturally: The question then becomes ‘ Can Entrepreneurship Be Learned ? “

  • Thanks, Quintius. I agree that courage and confidence are VERY important in entrepreneurship! I think courage and perseverance (mentioned in my post) are highly connected. If you have a big enough “why” that’s driving you, it will give you the courage to persevere. If your reasons for doing what you doing aren’t strong enough, whatever they may be for any particular person, then you’ll find it harder to come up with the courage necessary to carry on in the face of big challenges and “defeat”. Confidence, on the other hand, is something that usually results from a series of successes over time. You need to get your experiences on the “battlefield” and realize that you can succeed and excel. In my experience, for most people, that happens with a series of small successes over time, then one or two bigger successes that cause them to say to themselves, “I can do this”. The next thought usually is, “Well, if I can do this, then I can probably do a bunch of other things too”. So, just as success breeds success, confidence breeds confidence. Also, as in any endeavor, in entrepreneurship, it helps to build your confidence if you have people around you who believe in you and who support you in what you’re doing. Thanks for your comments. They were thought-provoking. Paul

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  • Robert Fowler

    Paul, I think entrepreneurship can be taught by example to show someone how it works on a day to day basis. The “thinking” part is hard to show but talking about new ideas and implementing them is key. Then providing some resources and guidence to increase one’s knowledge surely helps. I am mentoring someone right now and know it is difficult but also rewarding when the person starts to get self motivated.

  • Hi Robert, I agree that one-on-one mentoring can be effective for teaching many aspects of entrepreneurship. It takes quite a bit of time and dedication to do a thorough job, and obviously the mentor has to “know their stuff,” but mentoring and “apprenticeship” are two of the most time-tested ways of effectively communicating complex and dynamic information. Paul

  • Grady Pruitt

    It may be, too, that as one becomes more comfortable with how to run a business, they find it easier to adjust to the ability to take risks. When you don’t know what you are doing, every little move you make seems challenging and daunting and you’re second guessing every move you make. But as you get more familiar with it, then you are able to stretch further and try things you wouldn’t have thought possible before.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post!

  • You make a good point, Grady. As one becomes more confident and better understands what to expect from being an entrepreneur, every little step does not seem quite as risky. Thanks for your comments. Paul

  • Jimmy/Life Architect

    Hi Paul,

    I am new to your site. Thanks to this extremely in-depth discussion on entrepreneurship. You have really given us a good understanding of how we should approach successful entrepreneurship.

    With regards to the definition, I think in the modern generation, we should add the element of doing good in the definition. The literature terms this social entrepreneurship, but I think that it is important that entrepreneurship includes the elements of providing something that will improve people’s lives. Selling a product that teaches people to gamble better to me is not entrepreneurship, because at the core it is encouraging others to participate in vice activities. We need to be clear about how we should define entrepreneurship so that society improves in the long run.


  • Hi, Jimmy. Thanks for your comments. I appreciate your point of view, and for the sake of the world we live in, I hope a lot of people follow your lead in wanting to “do good” with their entrepreneurship. In my case, I’ve mainly focused on helping people in my entrepreneurial activities, so de facto, I’ve been staying in the realm of doing good. Unfortunately, there are folks out there who are focused on, let’s say, “not so good” activities. If those activities are illegal, then those people are criminals, not entrepreneurs. While there may be some similarities in some of what it takes to be a good criminal and what it takes to be a good entrepreneur, they are definitely not the same thing. In terms of other “vice activities,” as you termed it, in my opinion, people can still be “entrepreneurial” in those activities. You or I or other people may not like what they’re doing, but what they’re doing still may be entrepreneurial. Regarding the definition of “entrepreneur” or “entrepreneurship,” I think it’s best to keep it relatively simple, then folks who have a strong point of view about particular aspects of the endeavor can add their own tweaks to personalize it. Thanks again for stopping by. I appreciate your thought-provoking comments. Paul

  • I love your article, I have been into the line of business for
    many years and recently I took a daring step to go beyond the
    way I used to do work before. We started with managing people
    and their needs first, rather than considering maximizing our
    profits. We have seen massive growth in our business compared
    to my previous business venture which gave us a relatively slow results.

  • Thanks, Roger. Sound like, although it’s difficult to teach certain aspects of entrepreneurship, you certainly learned a lot from your previous venture. Thanks for stopping by and sharing. Paul

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  • Kenneth Donahey

    Thanks for sharing those tit bits of information.. surely made my day. =)

  • My pleasure. Happy you enjoyed it.

  • Ok. This post was brilliantly helpful, and kind of gave me a kick in the ass. Thank-You.

  • Glad you enjoyed it. Thanks.

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